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Balancing Act: Outlook for working women

With the election behind us, now is an ideal time to look at whether working women are advancing and how they will fare as a new administration leads our country.

Who better to discuss this topic than Carol Evans, founder of Working

Mother Media, who speaks Friday at The Women's Alliance National Conference in Miami about career challenges for women. I chatted with Evans, author of This is How We Do It: The Working Mothers' Manifesto, about the topics on my mind as a working mother in a diverse community.

Expectations for an Obama presidency: "Michelle Obama is a great role model as First Lady. She's a mother and a lawyer, who has had an active career. Women lawyers have a big challenge combining work and family because of the 24/7 nature of being a lawyer. I think she will be a refreshing face in the White House and reflect the concerns of working moms around the country.

Family-friendly legislation: "I hope to have some advancement on Family Medical Leave Act policies. It wouldn't be difficult to advance because we're way behind the rest of the world. I would like to see six weeks of paid leave. One week of paid paternity leave would be nice.

"I also would like to see all employees get paid sick days. It really doesn't pay to have sick people to come to work and get everyone else sick.''

Sarah Palin: "Any time you gain visibility, even through controversy, it raises awareness of the issues. [That] is good for all working mothers. I think the criticism of her had more to do with her own knowledge and experience as opposed to criticism for being a working mother. What delighted me was that left and right came out strongly in support of working mothers and defended her right to run. I think it was a breakthrough.''

Equal pay: "It isn't here yet and neither is equal promotion. That's the reason why I'll be in Miami talking about advancement of women. Even with women winning seats, Congress only went up from 16 to 17 percent women. If it's going to reflect the demographics, it would be 50 percent female. That gap exists everywhere, in all job types.

"If employers know they can hire women for less money, they selfishly take advantage of that. Women tend to not stand up for pay rights. They are grateful that they have been given responsibility and don't demand money that should go with that responsibility.''

Multicultural workplaces: "All across the country, the number of women of color in executive positions is low. There is a wider pool and still representation is low. What we have learned is that there is a lack of trust between multicultural women and Caucasian women. This is not obvious to Caucasian women. They are going into meetings and relationships assuming a level of trust that is not there. Women of color couldn't believe that white women didn't know this. This is a basic issue at the underpinning of race relations.''

Working Mother Magazine's Global Town Hall Meetings: "In Brazil, the men are far behind American men in supporting women in the workplace. There is a strong entrepreneurial sense in Brazil. Women felt if they couldn't make it in the corporate world, they could make it on their own. Women are doing well in business but they are not getting any support at home.

"In South Africa, there is a huge government mandate supporting equality of women in business. There's a government mandate to have equality for women in government. We had powerful women in the room with terrific jobs. But there was a great sense that men were not supporting them and playing as an important role in family life as the women wanted.''

Taking advantage of opportunities:
"I'm seeing a strong growth of employee resource groups or affinity groups. In fact, the organization hosting the conference in Miami is a network of women at KPMG. Joining these groups is a great way to get visibility and get known within the company.''

Future of work/life benefits: "You have the companies that deserve to be on Working Mother Magazine's list of 100 Best Companies, and then all the rest of the country. About 72 percent of the companies on our list offer paid paternity leave and only 13 percent of all companies do. The best companies will not reduce support of work/life benefits and they will increase flexibility because they see a big return on investment. It is not altruistic that companies offer these benefits. They are selfish benefits put in place to retain and attract top talent. Companies that offer these benefits as lip service or to throw workers a bone will downsize support because they don't get it.

"Another interesting point is employees are giving up their own flexibility as companies downsize. Employees want to be visible. They are nervous about taking advantage of flexibility.''

Part-time work: Part-time professional work is still cutting edge. About 70 percent of working moms have said if they could, they would work a part-time schedule. Part-time professional work is still elusive and an attractive option. It's easier for entrepreneurs to offer. But in this environment offering part-time work to professionals could bring in talent at affordable rates.

Advice for the next generation: "Embrace your choices in working motherhood. You don't have to climb straight up. One of the dangers women confront today is off-ramping and on-ramping [leaving the workplace and getting back in]. There is no good solution for the difficulties of on-ramping. But if keep your hand in and use flexibility tools, then you are much less likely to derail your career, the amount you earn, your pension. What you gain by staying in workforce is huge.''